Tuesday, 30 November 2010

The slightly odd story of Jane Austen's aunt

As you know from previous postings, I'm a Jane Austen O'Phile. I have two new wonderful books; one book is of her letters, and the other book is a family history. Both written by Deirdre Le Faye, and they are packed with information.

I thought I'd share this rather strange story about her Aunt. It highlights the absurdity of the law at the time, and how the crime against property was given more weight than the crime against persons. Probably not for all readers of this blog, but I know some of you share my interest and might like this.

Why you needed to take care buying lace

Jane Austen had an Aunt and Uncle called Leigh-Perret (mother's side)

Mr and Mrs Leigh-Perrot were very happily matched and married. In August 1799 they went to Bath so that Mr Leigh-Perrot (Jane's uncle) could take the waters for gout. Whilst he was having his treatment his wife visited the local haberdashers to buy some black lace.

The shop was owned by a chap called Smith who had left his wife, run away, and left debts which meant the shop was in severe in financial straits. Smith's sister in law began to take over the shop with 2 other nefarious characters she knew. They decided to blackmail Mrs Leigh-Perrot (she'd been in the shop before) by secreting another piece of lace in her parcel, stopping her when she left the shop, and claiming that she had stolen it. They hoped that to avoid prison, she would pay large sums of money as blackmail which would get them out of trouble.

BUT, Mrs Leigh Perrot wouldn't pay and 4 days later she had a charge laid against her at the Bath magistrates for stealing lace to the value of 20 shillings. She was committed to the Somerset County Gaol at Ilchester to await trial the following March. Because the lace was valued at more than 1shilling, she was accused of grand larceny, which was punishable by death or by transportation to Botany Bay for 14 years. Mr L-P went with his wife, and they waited for 7 months in squalid conditions until March 1800.

Here's an extract from a letter she wrote at the time.

One of my greatest Miseries here is the seeing what my dearest Husband is daily going through - Vulgarity, Dirt, Noise from Morning till Night. The People, not conscious that this can be Objectionable to anybody, fancy we are very happy, and to do them justice they mean to make us quite so...this Room joins to a Room where the Children all lie, and not Bedlam itself can be half so noisy, besides which, as not one particle of Smoke goes up the Chimney, except you leave the door or window open, I leave you to judge of the Comfort I can enjoy in such a Room...No! my Good Cousin, I cannot subject even a Servant to the suffering we daily experience...My dearest Perrot with his sweet composure adds to my Philosopy; to be sure he bids fair to have his patience tried in every way he can. Cleanliness has ever been his greatest delight and yet he sees the greasy toast laid by the dirty Children on his Knees, and feels the small Beer trickle down his sleeves on its way across the table unmoved...Mrs Scadding's Knife well licked to clean it from fried onions helps me now and then - you may believe how the Mess I am helped to is disposed of - here are two dogs and three Cats always full as hungry as myself.

Jane Austen's family tried to help by keeping up sustaining correspondence. The Leigh Perrots had plenty of friends in Bath and were well thought of.

The trial took place at Taunton on Saturday 29th March 1800. Mrs L-P found it hard to prove her innocence as she could not give evidence on oath on her own behalf, nor was her husband allowed to do so, and her counsel were not allowed to address the jury on her behalf, and were only allowed to examine and cross-examine witnesses.

The "baddies" had well rehearsed the shop assistants and others into what they had to say to prove theft. However, Mrs L-P's lawyers were able to cast doubts on the character and honesty of the shop owners. There were plenty of people in the town to give her a good character reference as well, and after a trial of seven hours, and a huge 1 hour summing up by the judge, the jury returned a verdict of Not Guilty 15 minutes later.

This is what Mrs L-P wrote on being released:

.......before 10 on Monday Morning our anxious Friends began coming in ...my whole time has been taken up in kissing and crying....To be sure I stand some chance of being killed by Popularity - tho I have escaped from Villainy. That these wretches had marked me for somebody timid enough to be Scared and Rich enough to pay handsomely rather than go through the terrible Proceedings of a public Trial nobody doubts; and by timing it when I had only my Husband with me, they were sure that I could have no Evidence against them. Surely our boasted Laws are strangely defective - owing to this Circumstance I find no Punishment from me can attach to these Villains - and had he gone off the very day before the Trial, we should have lain under the Stigma of having bought him off without a possibility of Clearing ourselves...my dear and Affectionalte Sister Austen is impatient for our going into Hampshire, but I cannot go just yet. I shall not feel quite easy till our heavy charges are known  and paid.

As well as enduring 7 months in gaol, the Leigh-Perrots's had to pay £2,000 for the expenses involved in defending themselves.

The astonishing thing is that if you use Average Earnings as a guide, this comes out to be £1.6 million at 2008 values.

Assuming you had the means, would you have paid the blackmail, or would you have gone to prison?

1 comment:

  1. From a modern standpoint it is so hard to imagine how you would react in this situation. Would the blackmailers have stopped at one demand? Quite probably not. I don't think the Leigh-Perrot's could have had much faith in the legal system although they relied on it. I really can't say what I would have done had it been me. You would have to be very strong to withstand the wait in prison until the trial. Thank goodness we have progressed since then, well, I think we have!